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Identifying Every NFL Team's Base Defense

Matt SteinCorrespondent IIJanuary 10, 2017

Identifying Every NFL Team's Base Defense

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    It used to be that defenses won championships in the NFL. While the league has shifted to a more offense-friendly league, a talented defense is still extremely important to a deep run in the playoffs.

    Both participating teams of last year's Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, had two of the best defenses in the league. Even though guys like Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco became the headline players, it was the defenses that made such a huge impact in getting those teams to the Super Bowl.

    Today we're going to identify every NFL team's base defense. This is the defense that they would use most commonly throughout a game and season.

    However, if a team throws in different looks or uses a hybrid-style defense, this will be discussed for each individual team.

    We'll also break down what makes each defense successful or causes them to struggle. Hopefully, by the time you're done reading, you'll have a great understanding of the base defenses and key players of every defense in the NFL.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: CB Patrick Peterson

    After a strong defensive start to the 2012 season, the Arizona Cardinals struggled after Week 4, going 1-11 in the final 12 games of the season.  However, this is a defense that has all the right pieces to be very successful and extremely dominant.

    The Cardinals rely on their defensive lineman like Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett to eat up offensive lineman. This will allow outside linebackers Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander and Alex Okafor to get better pressure on the quarterbacks.

    All this pressure created up front will give inside linebackers Daryl Washington, Jasper Brinkley, Kevin Minter and Karlos Dansby the opportunity to run free and make plays. Look for Washington to have an even more productive season than his 134 tackle effort from last season.

    As important as the front seven for Arizona will be this season, the real key for this defense will be the secondary. With all this pressure created, the secondary will have the opportunity to create a huge amount of turnovers.

    With Peterson flirting with becoming a top-tier cornerback and the addition of playmaker extraordinaire Tyrann Mathieu in this year's draft, don't be surprised if the Cardinals defense finishes the year amongst the leaders in defensive turnovers.

    Arizona improved its defense this offseason, and if it can play at a high level throughout the entire 2013 season, this could be a team to watch out for as a playoff sleeper team.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: OLB Sean Weatherspoon

    For the past seven years, the Atlanta Falcons have had the privilege of having John Abraham as the key player for this defense. Not only was he a vocal leader, but he also did what every successful defense needs; he created pressure on the quarterback.

    While the Falcons did sign defensive end Osi Umenyiora in the offseason, his diminishing skills have to make Atlanta wonder whether he'll be what the team needs off the edge. However, not all hope should be lost for the Falcons to find a pass-rushing specialist.

    Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi has the speed and athleticism to become a dominant player. He'll need to make some major improvements in his understanding of the game, but if that happens the Falcons might not miss Abraham at all.

    Once you get past the front four for Atlanta, the rest of the defense is actually quite talented this year. Weatherspoon is the obvious choice for most important and key player, and he also happens to be the most talented. 

    The secondary should also be much improved, with rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford capable of contributing immediately. With Weatherspoon running around making plays all over the field, and an improved pass-rush and secondary, the Falcons' defense could surprise some people this year.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: DE Haloti Ngata

    For the first time in over a decade, the Baltimore Ravens' defense will be without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. However, Baltimore did a great job of filling the needs created via retirements and free agency and should hardly miss a beat.

    They'll continue to run the same 3-4 defense that's made them one of the better overall units in the league. Ngata will continue to be the anchor of that defense, making an impact in the run game as well as putting pressure on the quarterback.

    The Ravens, however, are going to need someone else to start stepping up soon, though. Ngata ranked as only the 11th-best 3-4 defensive end according to Pro Football Focus last year (subscription required).

    What could make this defense be one of the best in recent memory is the combination of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw at outside linebacker. The combination of those four players should give every offense the Ravens face this year serious fits in all facets of the game.

    No one is expecting rookies Arthur Brown and Matt Elam to completely replace Lewis and Reed in their first season. However, if they can be productive starters, Baltimore should easily field a top-five defense this year.

Buffalo Bills

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: ILB Nigel Bradham

    The Buffalo Bills will be switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense for the 2013 season. This switch comes after the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

    Pettine was the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets from the 2009 season until last season, so the Bills defense should be very similar to that versatile, hybrid 3-4 defense the Jets were so well known for.

    In the style of defense that Pettine will run, Bradham's athleticism should shine. He'll be asked to play inside linebacker when the Bills play a 3-4 defense and he'll play outside linebacker when they switch to a 4-3 defense.

    The Bills will also boast one of the best defensive lines in the league with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. That trio should open up plenty of opportunities for the linebackers to make plays.

    In the secondary, Jairus Byrd remains their best player. However, second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore has the overall skill set to overtake Byrd. Outside of those two, unfortunately, the Bills lack playmakers in the secondary, which could ultimately hurt the production of the defense.

    The overall success of this unit will depend on how much pressure the front seven can produce and how many mistakes the secondary can avoid.

Carolina Panthers

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: ILB Luke Kuechly

    Even though the Carolina Panthers finished the fifth-worst defense last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), things are looking up for the 2013 season.

    The improvements will start in the middle with Kuechly. He's making the switch from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, where his skills are better suited for overall success. Don't be surprised if Kuechly puts up All-Pro numbers in his second-year with the Panthers.

    It's not just Kuechly that will help improve this defense, however. The defensive line should also be much improved. Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson were the sixth and eighth-best 4-3 defensive ends according to PFF.

    For the Panthers' 4-3 defense to be successful, especially in the pass-happy NFC South, they'll need to be able to create pressure up front with active linebackers who can cover tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez. Luckily for Carolina, it has that with Kuechly, Hardy and Johnson.

Chicago Bears

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DE Julius Peppers

    With the departure of former head coach Lovie Smith, the Chicago Bears won't be running as much of the Tampa 2 defense that they've run in the past. However, new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker did use some Tampa 2 while he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars, so it won't be completely lost in Chicago.

    The key for the Bears defense to work this year is going to be getting pressure off the edge, which is why Peppers, and not outside linebacker Lance Briggs, is the key player.

    Peppers had somewhat of a down year last year, but he'll need to get back to his old self if Chicago doesn't want to see a decline in its play in 2013.

    We all know how talented this team is at creating turnovers. The Bears had 24 interceptions, 23 forced fumbles and an NFL leading nine defensive touchdowns last year.

    Obviously, everyone wants to know what they'll do to replace recently retired linebacker Brian Urlacher. However, with D.J. Williams and rookie Jon Bostic, the loss of Urlacher shouldn't hurt too much this year.

    The Bears' 4-3 defense will look somewhat different this year, but should have a similar feel to it that Bears fans have gotten used to.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DT Geno Atkins

    The Cincinnati Bengals finished the 2012 season with the third-best defense according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Considering they didn't suffer any real losses, they should be just as good, if not better this season.

    The Bengals run a 4-3 defense and rely on their defensive tackles to force the issue up front. Atkins has quickly established himself as the premier player at his position, while Domata Peko and Devon Still are solid contributors.

    With pressure created up the middle, it allows Cincinnati's defensive ends more one-on-one situations with offensive tackles. That's why Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson were able to combine for 66 quarterback hurries last year.

    Cincinnati also boasts one of the most underrated secondaries in the league. With Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick locking up receivers, it'll allow Cincinnati to be even more aggressive with its front seven.

    As long as the Bengals can get consistent play from their starting linebackers (Vontaze Burfict, James Harrison and Rey Maualuga), this defense will continue to be elite.

Cleveland Browns

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: OLB Jabaal Sheard

    With a switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, the Cleveland Browns made a bunch of personnel changes this offseason. 

    It started in free agency, when the Browns brought in outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Desmond Bryant. Both Bryant and Kruger were two of the most desired free agents at their specific positions. They'll both start from day one, and be relied upon heavily to produce.

    After free agency, the Browns used some early draft picks on their defense, selecting outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Leon McFadden. Much like Kruger and Bryant, these two rookies should contribute early in their careers.

    The most intriguing player in the new 3-4 defense for the Browns will be Sheard, who is making the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker. However, don't be surprised if Cleveland uses Sheard all over the front seven due to his strength and athleticism.

    Cleveland has a chance to surprise some people on the defensive side of the ball.

Dallas Cowboys

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: OLB DeMarcus Ware

    The Dallas Cowboys are another team that is making a switch on defense. With the firing of Rob Ryan and hiring of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator, the Cowboys will switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense.

    Along with the defensive scheme switch, the Cowboys have a few key players switching positions. Both Ware and Anthony Spencer will make the move from outside linebacker to defensive end. It'll be interesting to see if both players can be as successful with their hands on the ground instead of standing up.

    The good news is that the Cowboys' linebackers appear to be better suited for a 4-3 defense.

    Middle linebacker Sean Lee and outside linebacker Bruce Carter both have skill sets more suited to this style of defense, where they can use their instincts and speed to make plays.

    As for the secondary, this should be the best unit Dallas has had in years. Both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are legitimate shutdown cornerbacks, and Will Allen should help improve the safety position.

    As long as Ware, who remains the key player for this defense, can continue to get consistent pressure on the quarterback, this defense should be successful this year.

Denver Broncos

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: OLB Von Miller

    Few defensive players have the ability to completely take over games like Miller. That's why he's a legitimate MVP candidate for the 2013 season, and the key player for the Denver Broncos' defense.

    Miller's ability to impact both the ground game and create pressure on the quarterback allows the rest of the Broncos' defenders to do so much. They can be more aggressive when they need to, but also drop more players into coverage due to Miller's pass-rushing ability.

    The big questions for Denver this year will be its age on defense and new players. With D.J. Williams signing with the Chicago Bears and the whole Elvis Dumervil fax fiasco, the Broncos have a handful of new starters on defense who'll need to step up.

    As for age, cornerback Champ Bailey is really the only player who Denver should be concerned about. He'll be 35 years old when the 2013 season starts, and questions will arise about whether he'll continue to be the elite cornerback that he's been in the past.

    Pro Football Focus ranked the Broncos as the best defense in the league last year (subscription required). While there are a number of new pieces, the talent is certainly there for them to repeat as the best defensive team in the league.

Detroit Lions

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DT Ndamukong Suh

    The defense has been the Achille's heel for the Detroit Lions in recent seasons. The only area they really haven't struggled at is creating pressure on the quarterback.

    Their play against the run and pass, however, were really quite bad last year. While the Lions did make improvements to their secondary, they didn't bring in many players who'll help with the run. That means they trust their current personnel to improve in that area of the game.

    The key will be for defensive tackles Suh and Nick Fairley to continue to learn to balance their aggressiveness with awareness. Too often they have been content with going full speed at the quarterback, completely forgetting about playing the run.

    Hopefully, the addition of Ezekial "Ziggy" Ansah in the draft will take some pressure of Suh and Fairley to get pressure on quarterbacks. If Ansah can tap into his potential early in the season, this defensive line has the potential to be one of the best in the league.

    The Lions have the pieces in place to be successful on defense, and there should be some improvement in 2013.

Green Bay Packers

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: OLB Clay Matthews

    Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is considered a defensive guru by many, but the Green Bay Packers have struggled on defense in recent seasons. The main reason for this is the fact that they have struggled to create any type of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

    In the Packers' 3-4 defense, they need to get consistent pressure to be successful. While Matthews once again had an All-Pro season last year with 13 sacks, he didn't get much help at all from his teammates.

    There were some injuries, mainly to outside linebacker Nick Perry and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, that could explain some of those difficulties. But the problems go much deeper than just the injuries.

    The Packers need more production from their defensive line. Rookie Datone Jones should instantly help in that area with his versatility and pass-rushing skills.

    The strongest part of the Packers' defense this year will likely be the secondary with Tramon Williams, Sam Shield and Casey Hayward leading the way. If the young safeties on the roster can step up, this could end up being the best secondary in the league.

    Green Bay is always on the brink of being one of the better defenses in the league. As long as they can stay healthy, they should once again be right there with the best defenses in the NFL.

Houston Texans

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: DE J.J. Watt

    Ever since Wade Phillips came over from the Dallas Cowboys and installed his 3-4 defense for the Houston Texans, this has been one of the best defenses there is.

    Of course, it helps to have had a player like Watt for the past two seasons. The defending Defensive Player of the Year had one of the most dominant defensive seasons in NFL history last year.

    He'll be the key again this year to the Texans being successful on defense. Watt's ability to impact the run game, bat down passes at the line of scrimmage and get after the quarterback all help to make his teammates successful.

    It'll be interesting to see how the addition of free safety Ed Reed impacts this defense. While there is no doubting his place in history, he certainly isn't the player he used to be. If he struggles, he could really hurt the overall production of this defense.

    However, as long as Watt continues to be the dominant player that he is, the Texans' defense should be just fine.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: OLB Robert Mathis

    Last year the Indianapolis Colts switched to a 3-4 defense, and to say they struggled would be an understatement. They graded out as the second-worst defense in the league according to Pro Football Focus, including the worst defense against the run (subscription required).

    However, the Colts made some moves this offseason—by both addition and subtraction—that should help in the long run. They decided to not re-sign Dwight Freeney, who really struggled to make the transition to outside linebacker.

    The Colts were active in free agency, signing defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, outside linebacker Erik Walden, safety LaRon Landry and cornerback Greg Toler. All these players are perfect fits for a 3-4 style defense, and should start their first year in Indianapolis.

    It's hard to imagine the Colts struggling for a second-straight year on defense under head coach Chuck Pagano. He's been known as a defensive guru for so long that this team should at least see some improvement in year two of Pagano's reign.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DT Roy Miller

    The Jacksonville Jaguars hired Gus Bradley as their new head coach this offseason. Bradley was formerly the defensive coordinator for the extremely successful defense of the Seattle Seahawks.

    Bradley is expected to bring a similar style of a 4-3 defense to Jacksonville this season. He likes to be aggressive with his defenses. That doesn't necessarily mean he'll blitz a lot, but rather be aggressive with all members of his defense, including linebackers and cornerbacks.

    Jacksonville will have a number of new members on their defensive unit including Miller, outside linebacker Geno Hayes and cornerback Marcus Trufant. Throw in rookie safety Jonathan Cyprien and cornerback Dwayne Gratz and you have the makings of a very physical defense.

    It'd be surprising to see the Jaguars have a huge amount of success in Bradley's first season as head coach. However, as he gets more players that fit his style, it won't be long before they are a solid unit.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: SS Eric Berry

    Despite finishing the season 5-11, the Kansas City Chiefs still had four members of their defense invited to the Pro Bowl. That goes to show just how talented this defense is, and the potential that they have as a unit.

    They'll continue to run a 3-4 defense with the personnel that they have.

    The Chiefs real success starts with their group of linebackers. They boast one of the best duos at outside linebacker in the league in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Throw in Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker and you have a trio of extremely talented and productive linebackers.

    As good as the linebackers are, the player who will be the key to the Chiefs reaching their full potential will be Berry. He's yet to live up to his high expectations as the No. 5 pick out of college.

    However, if he can start to do that, this defense could really be something quite special.

Miami Dolphins

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DE Cameron Wake

    The Miami Dolphins will switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense this year, making a few other switches along the way.

    They'll likely move Jared Odrick from defensive end to defensive tackle, where he should compete to start. Rookie Dion Jordan will play defensive end, even though some speculated he'd be a better outside linebacker.

    There are also new faces among the linebackers in Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. Both players are younger upgrades over Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett.

    They also replaced cornerback Sean Smith with Brent Grimes.

    The player who could like the defensive switch the most is Wake. He's coming off a season where he recorded 15 sacks and three forced fumbles. It wouldn't be crazy to think those numbers could increase in the Dolphins' new defensive system this year.

    Miami could surprise some people on both sides of the ball this year, and should be a team to watch as the season progresses.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DE Jared Allen

    The Minnesota Vikings have been running a 4-3 defense for along time, and things won't change this season.

    They'll still rely heavily on Allen to produce pressure up front from the defensive end position. However, the Vikings will need other younger players to step up this year.

    Luckily, Minnesota has those players in place for this defense to continue to have success. Rookies Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes should contribute heavily right away. 

    The Vikings also have Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson and Erin Henderson, who are all relatively young players. As long as the necessary players can step up, Minnesota should be solid on the defensive side of the ball.

New England Patriots

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DT Vince Wilfork

    The New England Patriots have never really been known for their defense. However, they finished the 2012 season as the fifth-best defense in the league according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). They run a hybrid style defense that will sometimes line up in 3-4 sets, but they'll play mostly out of a 4-3 defense this year.

    Wilfork will once again be expected to defy physics and all logic, and move like a man half his size in the middle of the defensive line. He's so strong and so quick that it's scary.

    As good as Wilfork continues to be, it might not be too long until a younger player becomes the key member to this 4-3 defense. Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes and Devin McCourty have all been drafted since the 2010 season, and all are extremely talented.

    What has made the Patriots defense so successful is their ability to plug in players and adapt to strengths. They'll likely do that again this season and continue their surprising success in 2013.

New Orleans Saints

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: SS Kenny Vaccaro

    No defense was as bad as the New Orleans Saints were last year. They had the worst pass rush and the worst pass coverage in the league according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    However, the Saints could be the team that sees the biggest improvement in their defensive play this upcoming season. For starters, the hiring of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator and the installing of a 3-4 defense should make a big difference.

    On top of that, the Saints did a great job of bringing in players who can make an instant impact. Free agents Victor Butler and Keenan Lewis should both start, as should rookies Kenny Vaccaro and John Jenkins.

    With all these new pieces in place, don't be surprised at all if the Saints finish the year in the upper half of the league in terms of overall defense.

New York Giants

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DE Jason Pierre-Paul

    The New York Giants will continue to run their 4-3 defense and continue to rely heavily on getting pressure from their front four in order to be successful. That's why the fact that Pierre-Paul has already had back surgery is such bad news for this defense.

    However, the Giants are hoping that the new faces they signed in the offseason will be able to make an impact right away. New linebackers Dan Connor and Keith Rivers, as well as defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, are all expected to start from day one.

    If Pierre-Paul struggles to regain full strength early in the season, this team could once again struggle on defense.

New York Jets

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: DE Muhammad Wilkerson

    There was a time when the New York Jets consistently produced one of the top defenses in the league. Unfortunately, that may no longer be the case moving forward. 

    The Jets were mediocre at best last year. This is why they probably felt the need to spend both of their first-round draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. Both Sheldon Richardson and Dee Milliner should have big roles in their first season in New York.

    The key for this defense getting back to being a dominant unit will be having the younger players step up.

    Wilkerson has already proved to be one of the best young defensive ends in the league. However, he'll need help from guys like Quinton Coples, Demario Davis and Kyle Wilson.

    If all these players can begin to put things together, the Jets could start to get back into the upper echelon of NFL defenses.

Oakland Raiders

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: FS Charles Woodson

    While there has been speculation that the Oakland Raiders might switch to a 3-4 defense, that hasn't happened yet. 

    They certainly have some of the pieces to play a 3-4 style of defense, but lack playmaking outside linebackers and a nose tackle. That's why it's likely that they'll remain a 4-3 defense for at least another season.

    The Raiders lost two key pieces of their defense in defensive tackle Desmond Bryant and linebacker Phillip Wheeler. However, they signed a handful of players who should be able to contribute from day one for Oakland.

    The biggest offseason signing was Woodson, who'll be returning to the team who originally drafted him. While he's no longer the elite player he once was, his defensive leadership will be huge to such a young team.

    No one is expecting the Raiders to have an extremely stout defense this year, but they should be able to hold their own against some of the less talented offenses in the league. Let's just say it's a good thing they play in the AFC West.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: DE Fletcher Cox

    No defense was as surprisingly bad as the Philadelphia Eagles' defense was over the course of the 2012 season. The only area of the game that they were successful in was the pass rush, where Pro Football Focus ranked them as the best defense in the league in that category (subscription required).

    The Eagles got rid of both of their starting cornerbacks this offseason, replacing Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with free agents Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. Second-year cornerback Brandon Boykin should also play a big role in the secondary.

    However, the key for this team to succeed is going to be the play of the front seven. They'll need to be able to create pressure with players like Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin, and make plays with DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks.

    If this front seven can hold up for all 16 games, we could see a drastically-improved defense in Philadelphia in 2013.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: SS Troy Polamalu

    While the players may be getting older, and some may look different, the Pittsburgh Steelers will continue to run the same 3-4 defense that they have for years.

    The biggest loss/addition was probably that at outside linebacker. James Harrison is now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals and rookie Jarvis Jones will attempt to replace some of the passion that Harrison brought to the field.

    Overall, the Steelers use the ability to produce pressure on quarterbacks and make them uncomfortable to be successful. It helps to do that when you have a versatile defender like Polamalu on the field who can make plays in so many ways.

    It'll be interesting to see if the Steelers' age begins to show this year on defense or if some of their younger players start to show up.

San Diego Chargers

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: FS Eric Weddle

    The San Diego Chargers are one of the few teams that fun a specific defense, but don't really have the personnel to excel at that defense.

    For example, the Chargers lack an explosive pass rusher off the edge. They don't have an Aldon Smith or a Clay Matthews to bring the heat. Instead, they have Jarret Johnson and recently signed Dwight Freeney.

    Furthermore, San Diego doesn't have a nose tackle it can rely on to consistently play at a high level. Current starter Cam Thomas finished last year ranked No. 56 amongst defensive tackles according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Where the Chargers do have some talent, which could ultimately make this defense successful, is in the secondary. Weddle is one of the best safeties in the league and cornerbacks Derek Cox and Shareece Wright have the potential to be extremely solid players.

    The Chargers defense will likely struggle this year, especially if it has difficulties producing any type of pass-rush.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: ILB Patrick Willis

    When people want to point to the most dominant defense in the league, they'll often look no further than the San Francisco 49ers. They've done a fantastic job of getting the right pieces in place to run their 3-4 defense to perfection.

    They rely on defensive end/tackle Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith to produce pressure. The crazy thing is that they use different schemes and stunts to confuse offensive lineman, and get to the quarterback with a limited amount of pass-rushers.

    This frees up players like Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman to do what they do best, which is roam the middle of the field and make plays. Willis and Bowman are easily two of the best defensive players in the league right now, and they were made for a 3-4 defense like San Francisco runs.

    The 49ers will also have an improved secondary this year.

    Despite losing Dashon Goldson to free agency, San Francisco added rookie safety Eric Reid and free-agent cornerback Asomugha. Both are excellent in coverage, and could really bring this defense to another level.

    It's scary to think of the 49ers' defense as getting better, but they certainly have the players in place to do exactly that.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: CB Richard Sherman

    Even though former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is gone, don't expect the Seattle Seahawks' defense to look much different in 2013. They'll continue to run the same aggressive 4-3 defense that they've run in the past.

    What really makes this defense so successful is the secondary.

    With Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Brandon Browner, the Seahawks can leave their secondary on an island, and use the rest of their defenders to make quarterbacks uncomfortable.

    They also have players that are pass-rushing specialists, designed for the sole purpose of getting after the quarterback. Players like Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons aren't three-down players, but come in when Seattle needs to get pressure, because that's what they do best.

    The Seahawks have done a fantastic job of creating one of the most aggressive and talented defenses in the league. They're also young enough to remain among the best in the league for a handful of years.

St. Louis Rams

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DE Robert Quinn

    Slowly, but surely, the St. Louis Rams have build a rather solid 4-3 defense that does a little bit of everything well. They have a pass-rush, they can play the run and they're stout in coverage.

    They key for St. Louis has been to build through the draft. Seven of its current 11 starters on defense were drafted by the team, all of them since the 2008 draft. That means this team is still extremely young, and is only going to get better on this side of the ball.

    Both Quinn and Chris Long really stepped up their games last year, proving to be upper-tier defensive ends in the league. They'll need to get more consistent play from second-year defensive tackle Michael Brockers up the middle, however.

    The secondary may be the strongest point of this defense, as Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins were a handful for receivers last year. Overall, this defense looks like a unit on its way up, and one that could compete with some of the best in the league in the very near future.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: CB Darrelle Revis

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers surprised everyone last year by putting together a rather solid unit on the field for 16 games. They finished just outside the top-10 in overall defense according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    The area where the Buccaneers really struggled was in the secondary, which is why they made so much noise in the offseason improving that part of their defense. While Revis is the marquee player, safety Goldson and rookie cornerback Jonathan Banks will also help tremendously.

    Where Tampa Bay really excelled last year was with its front seven. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy established himself as one of the best at his position, while rookie outside linebacker Lavonte David was a legitimate Defensive-Rookie-of-the-Year candidate.

    Tampa Bay will also be getting Da'Quan Bowers back from injury. He's expected to be the player who becomes the dominant pass rusher for this defense due to his quickness and athleticism.

    Overall, the Buccaneers defense should be greatly improved from last year. Don't be shocked if we're talking about this team as a top-five defensive unit next year.

Tennessee Titans

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    Base Defense: 4-3

    Key Player: DT Jurrell Casey

    There haven't really been many nice things to say about the Tennessee Titans' defense in recent seasons. They've looked good on paper, but they've failed to produce on the field when necessary.

    The biggest problem for Tennessee has been getting any type of pass rush out of its players. Neither Derrick Morgan or Kamerion Wimbley were able to create pressure off the edge on a consistent basis last year.

    While Casey was the best player defensively last year, he was more dominant against the run than he was as a pass-rusher. In fact, Casey graded out as the second-best defensive tackle against the run according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Without a pass rush up front, the Titans will have to get creative in their 4-3 defense and use their athletic linebackers to blitz. This will put more pressure on the cornerbacks and safeties in coverage, but Tennessee has some talent at those positions.

    Once the Titans can begin to get quarterbacks at least worried about pressure, they could become a rather solid unit defensively. 

Washington Redskins

33 of 33

    Base Defense: 3-4

    Key Player: ILB London Fletcher

    The Washington Redskins were really quite bad on defense last year. Pro Football Focus had them ranked as the fourth-worst defense in the league (subscription required).

    The two areas that Washington struggled the most at was against the run and in coverage.

    In terms of coverage, they drafted three rookies in their secondary this year. Cornerback David Amerson and safeties Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo could all contribute this year to help boost the secondaries production.

    In terms of the struggles against the run, the Redskins are hoping that the return of Brian Orakpo will help in that area. If his athleticism and playmaking abilities can help in the run, this defense will be decent next year.

    I don't think anyone expects the Redskins to field a top-10 defense in 2013, but they should definitely improve from the No. 29 spot that they were in last year.

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